Would you give away half your wealth? Lessons from one family that did.

Would you give away half your wealth? Lessons from one family that did.



The Salwens’ story started in 2006. While sitting with her her father in the family’s Toyota Scion at a traffic stop, then 14-year-old Hannah spotted a homeless man just across the street from a man driving a pricy Mercedes coupe.

“Dad, if that man had a less nice car, that man there could have a meal,” Hannah said. 

“Yeah,” her father replied. “But you know, if we had a less nice car, he could have a meal.”

I recently read The Power of Half by father and daughter co-authors Kevin and Hannah Salwen. The book recounts the Salwen family’s decision to sell their luxury Atlanta home, downsize to a home half the price, and give the other half to charity.

The exchange at the stoplight sparked a deep family conversation for the Salwens about the disparity between those who have wealth and those who live in poverty, their personal family values, and what was truly important in life. 

Hannah’s contribution to the discussion served as the final catalyst for their eventual lifestyle change.

“I really don’t want to be the kind of family that just talks about doing things,” she said. “I want to be a family that actually does them.”

7 questions about effective giving

As a family, the Salwens made the extraordinary decision to simplify their lives, sell their 6,500-square-foot showcase home, move to a smaller house, and decided to give away the proceeds from the sell to charity. But that life-changing decision was only the start. They then undertook a yearlong process of considering where to donate the $800,000 they gained from downsizing. They sought family consensus on several issues:

  1. Should we donate in the Atlanta area, the U.S., or overseas? Where and for what cause or purpose?
  2. Should we start a new organization or fund an existing one?
  3. Should we fund planners (i.e., a large U.N. project) or searchers (i.e., entrepreneurs experimenting with grassroots strategies to empower local people)
  4. Should we spend it on relief efforts or try to provide longer-term help?
  5. Should we seek social investments (e.g., microfinance) to generate even more funds to be reinvested?
  6. Should we donate to one charity or spread it around?
  7. Should we just donate the money or do we want hands-on involvement, or at least oversight of the spending?

The Salwen family sold their Atlanta home in order to downsize to a smaller property four blocks away. They donated the $800,000 proceeds of the sale to poverty relief work in sub-Saharan Africa.

After arduous discussion, the Salwens ultimate agreed to use their money to help address poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, which would allow them to yield the most benefit by focusing their funds where the need is greatest. They agreed that they wanted to support projects within an organization operating effectively to empower local people to lift themselves out of poverty.

They narrowed the choice to four such organizations worthy of consideration. The Salwens met with each to understand how they operated, what results they could show to demonstrate their effectiveness, and what evidence they could provide to indicate that their programs would generate long-lasting self-sustaining results and avoid dependence on continued funding or a return to prior conditions.

After a lengthy, deliberative process, the Salwens decided that they would give $800,000–half the expected sale value of the house–to the Hunger Project, an international charity that gives “a hand-up, not a handout” to needy people around the world. Notably, when the Salwens’ house sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars less than they expected, they still donated the full $800,000 to the Hunger Project because they had promised to do so, even though it meant more sacrifices for the family members than they had agreed upon.

The Salwens’ donation would fund two food and banking centers in Ghana, each of which would serve up to a dozen villages—providing each with a meeting hall, a bank for microloans, a food storage facility, and a health center. The funds would cover “five years of programs to help the villagers become more self-reliant, healthier, and more empowered.”  While the Salwens did visit Ghana at the start of the project to better understand the problems they were addressing and see how the projects would operate to empower the villagers, the Hunger Project oversaw the project and the funds.

The value of effective giving

As I read about how the Salwens carefully weighed their comfort and prestige against the wellbeing of unfortunate people locally and around the world, I thought of Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save. Whether the question at hand concerns a daily splurge on a gourmet cup of coffee or the extra rooms and conveniences of a showcase home, the key is identifying personal values and having the intellectual and moral fortitude to live up to them.

This wasn’t a quick or easy process for the Salwens. They didn’t get caught up in emotions stoked by poster children or celebrity spokespeople; nor did they take shortcuts such as looking only at overhead costs and ignoring impact measurement. They diligently worked through information from and about the nonprofits they considered and focused on long-term effectiveness. How much benefit would their money yield, and would it be sustainable without creating dependence on charity?  While the nature of the available research didn’t allow for precise quantitative analysis, the fact-driven nature of the thought process they followed reminded me of The Life You Can Save Foundation’s process of recommending only the most effective, evidence-backed charities.

The Power of Half was published in 2010, shortly after the publication of Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save in 2009. Both the Salwens and Peter Singer were featured on the February 7, 2010 episode of the long-running CBS “Sunday Morning” TV show entitled “Selling Your Home for Charity.” This clip features the Salwens’ portion of the show.

The Salwens learned that seeking to change the world in their own unique way also served to change the family very much for the better, strengthening their family bonds and increasing their happiness. In the same way, The Life You Can Save teaches us that both givers and receivers can gain from thoughtful philanthropy.

For more on how we gain happiness from giving, see Harvard professor Michael Norton’s TED Talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_norton_how_to_buy_happiness.

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About the author:

Roy Gamse

Roy Gamse has founded or played a senior role in nonprofits over the last twenty years, including Earth Force, Youth Venture, and Imagine Schools. He has also been a senior executive at MCI and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He has degrees from MIT and Harvard Business School.

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.